Michael Blumhardt / Asante
If you live in one of the rural communities in the forested hills along the Oregon and California border and are in need of serious medical care, you will likely end up at Asante Rogue Regional Medical Center. It serves about nine counties on both sides of the border.
The Asante system includes three hospitals in Rogue Valley – in the towns of Ashland, Medford and Grants Pass. According to the staff, all three intensive care units are 100% staffed with COVID-19 patients.
“We had two deaths today. So it’s a very dark, difficult time,” said intensive care medical director Dr. Michael Blumhardt, recently on a Tuesday in August.
In contrast to earlier stages of the pandemic, Asante hospitals are now treating COVID-19 patients aged 20, 30, 40 and 50, according to Blumhardt.
“We’re seeing a gathering of families taking in. We had a father and an adult daughter who were admitted to the intensive care unit and he died. I had to put the daughter on life support shortly before,” he says.
Overall, vaccination rates are looking pretty good in many states. However, if you zoom in, you will see a checkerboard effect that varies greatly from county to county. Oregon is no different. In and around the metropolis of Portland, two-thirds of all residents are fully vaccinated. But rural counties are nowhere near that; many have vaccination rates of less than 50% or even 40%. Jackson County, in southern Oregon, is home to the largest number of unvaccinated people in the state. That pushes the local hospitals to their limits.
Blumhardt from Asante attributes the current increase to the highly transferable Delta variant, but also to the widespread rejection of the coronavirus vaccine in this area.
“This is far more severe for this region than the previous waves of COVID,” he says. “The Delta virus is moving through the region like a circular saw.”
At the Asante ICU in Medford, Chelsea Orr, a registered nurse, is closely monitoring patients.
“We have a lot of ventilated patients here who are super sick,” said Chelsea Orr, an intensive care nurse.
What feels different at this stage of the pandemic, she adds, is the incredible loss of life.
“It was really hard. We’re working harder than ever and we’re still losing,” Orr said.
Another ICU nurse, Justin McCoy, agrees.
“I’ve been an intensive care nurse for ten years. I’ve never seen anything like it,” says McCoy. “It is really terrible to see these patients who cannot breathe. It is very difficult to observe. It’s really terrifying for them and it’s really difficult for us to see day after day. “
Most of Asante’s patients are unvaccinated, according to Blumhardt.
“We allow nine unvaccinated people per vaccinated person. So the vaccine clearly protects against hospitalization,” he says.
Jackson County has record numbers of COVID infections. Within a few weeks, many of these people can get worse and require hospital treatment. Unfortunately, a new forecast from Oregon Health and Science University predicts the state will face a shortage of 400 to 500 staffed hospital beds by Labor Day.
Blumhardt says smaller hospitals in Oregon have tried to move their sickest patients to Asante, but so far they have had to turn away about 200 people because they don’t have the beds or the staff.
Although Asante has already postponed some operations, the staff are simply exhausted, says emergency doctor Dr. Courtney Wilson.
“I think people are frustrated,” says Wilson. “It’s disheartening that we have had a vaccine in this community for a long time and we have a really low vaccination rate here.”
Earlier this month, Oregon Governor Kate Brown sent National Guardsmen to overwhelmed counties to help with non-clinical tasks like cleaning hospital rooms, transporting medical supplies and controlling traffic. 150 soldiers were sent to southern Oregon. Medical directors from Asante and Providence, the other hospital system in Rogue Valley, have teamed up to petition the state to set up a 300-bed field hospital. The state has also signed a contract in order to insert Hundreds of medical “crisis teams” made up of nurses, respiratory therapists and paramedics from medical personnel service providers to overwhelmed hospitals.
“I don’t know how we are supposed to take care of everyone. That is the end result. We are all on deck at all levels of the organization,” says Blumhardt.
Jackson County’s residents are starting to respond to the crisis. The rate of New Vaccination here has grown and is now about twice that of the Portland area. But thousands of people still need to be vaccinated to catch up.
This story was produced as part of NPR’s reporting partnership with Jefferson Public Radio and Kaiser Health News.
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